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This Is the Planet of Sound: RME Program Gives Aspiring Producers Hands-on Experience PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Megan Stephenson   
Wednesday, 09 September 2009 14:35

Instructor Lars Rehnberg at The Sound Lab

As students sit around computers, microphones, and mixing tables, they ignore the technology and listen intently to Newton's laws of motion, learn an equation to find the frequency of a room, and see what a wavelength looks like. In audio engineering 101, on the second floor of the River Music Experience (RME) on the last Saturday in August, half a dozen beginners are being taught the fundamentals of acoustics.

Jesse Topping, 17, is one of these students. He grew up in a musical household; his mom played the cello since she was little, and Jesse plays piano, bass, and guitar. He has a computer recording program but is taking this class to better understand how to use it.

"I love the expression, the limitless possibilities of what you can do with sound as art," Topping said.

The class is a part of The Sound Lab, now in its fourth semester. The program offers three courses for aspiring music producers as well as for musicians who want to learn more about the recording industry.

Audio engineering 101 starts with the basics of recording, both live and in the studio. Students are introduced to professional software -- ProTools -- and learn how to record and mix broadcast-quality sound. They learn that quality sound is as much about the producer/show manager as the musician.

Many students are learning both sides of the business. The instructor, Lars Rehnberg, said about half his students are also musicians.

In 101, he explains is how to equalize the room where the musicians are playing to optimize sound for a room's acoustics.

"Every room resonates sound, and one thing students are learning is how to find the frequency of the room" using the height, width, and length of the space as variables, he said. Hearing the correct frequency on one's own is difficult, Rehnberg said, but some musicians can do it. To facilitate communication between musicians and engineers, Rehnberg created a chart comparing musical notes -- a system the students are already familiar with -- to Hertz, the standard unit for frequency.

In audio engineering 102, students study the complex machinery that complements the sound -- microphones and PA systems -- as well as how to build their own equipment. They also study psychoacoustics, or connections between sound and the brain.

Audio engineering 103 delves into the logistics of producing: developing a business plan, marketing an event, using graphic design and the Web, and running a studio and a stage show.

The Sound Lab's students get hands-on experience running sound at shows at Mojo's (the RME coffeehouse) and the Redstone Room in the advanced classes. Classes meet two to three times per week, for two hours, in an eight-week semester.

Rehnberg said students need to take their time learning these skills, which combine both art and science.

"Slower is faster," he tells students. "Take the time to learn how to do it properly; what you don't have time for is banging your head against the wall in frustration."

"Just the Right Time"

The Sound Lab was an initiative to expand the River Music Experience's educational curriculum and was created by Tom Swanson, the organization's general manager; Justin Farley, its production manager and sound engineer; and Ellis Kell, the director of programming. (The RME also provides private music lessons through West Music and Rock Camp USA.)

Swanson -- who, like Rehnberg, is a former employee of the River Cities' Reader -- applied for and received in early 2007 a $30,000 grant from the Scott County Regional Authority to build and equip the facility, which started in the basement of the RME building and has expanded to the second floor. Swanson himself worked on some of the construction and assembled work stations that Sound Lab students would later learn on, he said via e-mail. Classes began in 2008.

"We provide an economical way to learn more about current recording technology," Kell said. "It's valuable for people to record original material at a quality level."

Around the time Swanson was looking for an instructor, Lars Rehnberg, now 29, was planning his own program for recording technology. He got a tip that the RME was seeking someone like him: a person with a teaching background and a talent and passion for music. Rehnberg previously taught English at the University of Alabama and special education in his hometown of Rockford, Illinois, and has worked musically on- and off-stage since he was 15, playing guitar and charango, a South American instrument similar to a mandolin. Instead of starting from scratch and creating his own program through his record label, River Drive Records, he decided to collaborate with the RME.

"We found each other at just the right time," Rehnberg said.

The instructor has already added material to the curriculum, such as shooting music videos, because many of his students now are looking into television or film audio. His focus therefore is on skills that are broadly applicable in music-related fields.